How Double Agent Oleg Gordievsky Changed the Course of History

He exposed Soviet espionage rings, helped avert a nuclear conflagration and changed the course of the Cold War. The story of a senior KGB officer who, as a double agent, became one of the most influential spies ever

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Oleg Gordievsky. From “The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War”
Oleg Gordievsky. From “The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War”
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

In a house surrounded by a high fence on a nondescript street in a British suburb lives a stooped, bearded man of 80. He rarely ventures out. Friends and colleagues from the past occasionally come to call. He spends his days reading, writing, listening to classical music and keeping abreast of world news. He takes a special interest in events in his homeland, from which he fled in the trunk of a diplomatic vehicle in 1985. He hasn’t been back since and never will return. A death sentence awaits him there. The charge: treason.

The name of the elderly man, Oleg Gordievsky, still rattles veteran KGB officials. Toward the end of the last century, Gordievsky, a senior officer in the Soviet Union’s espionage organization, crossed the lines and became the most senior Russian spy at MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service. For more than a decade he passed on valuable secrets and intelligence information to his British handlers from the very heart of the Soviet agency he served in. His direct access to sensitive, top-secret information quickly made him one of the most influential spies in history.

The vast amount of information that Gordievsky provided to the British at a key historical juncture changed the course of the Cold War. He helped avert a nuclear war, exposed Soviet spy rings in Britain and provided the British – and through them, the entire West – with a glimpse into the mood in the Kremlin. Among the most senior “clients” of the high-quality intelligence he supplied were U.S. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

British historian and writer Ben Macintyre, author of several highly regarded books on the world of espionage, met with Gordievsky dozens of times in recent years and emerged with 130 hours of recordings of conversations with the reclusive ex-spy. That material was the basis for Macintyre’s 2018 book “The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War” (which is being published this month in Hebrew in Israel). A perusal of the book’s almost 400 information-packed pages reveals many new details about the riveting affair and constitutes a window to the arcane world of espionage and intelligence-gathering.

“He lives alone, but under heavy protection and the tightest possible security,” Macintyre told me in an email conversation, when I asked about his encounters with Gordievsky. “He is not scared of the Russian government. I am not sure he is scared of anything,” he added.

Oleg Gordievsky in a photo taken secretly by the Danish espionage agency while he was posted in Copenhagen.

In 2008, Gordievsky’s name made headlines when he alleged that “rogue elements in Moscow” had tried to assassinate him by giving him, through an acquaintance, poisoned sleeping pills. He was hospitalized, unconscious, for almost three days, but eventually recovered. The incident did not daunt him. By agreeing to be interviewed by Macintyre, knowing the information he would give the writer would bring him into the limelight again – he proved beyond a doubt that he is indeed unafraid.

According to Macintyre, Gordievsky “has astonishing powers of recall. He was open, occasionally irascible, and frequently very funny.” He describes their meetings as “friendly, professional, exhausting and exhaustive.” These encounters enabled Macintyre to tell the “full story” of the West’s most senior spy run in the Soviet Union “as it has never been told before,” according to the author. To complete the picture, he also interviewed the MI6 officers who handled Gordievsky.

“He has paid a huge price for what he did, but I never heard him utter a single word of regret,” Macintyre says.

Not for the money

Col. Oleg Antonovich Gordievsky was considered the wunderkind of the Soviet intelligence services. His father, an avowed communist, served in the NKVD, Joseph Stalin’s secret police, a forerunner of the KGB. Thus, Gordievsky was born, as it were, “into the KGB,” in 1938 in Moscow. Macintyre writes in the book. “The Soviet spy service was in his heart and in his blood.” Joining the KGB in 1961, he rose quickly through the ranks. He was successful in every position and in every place he was posted – Scandinavia, Moscow, Britain. At the age of 46 he was appointed head of the KGB’s London bureau, a key assignment that made him the most senior Soviet intelligence figure on British soil.

However, behind the facade of the professional Soviet spy was a double agent who acted in contravention of his mission and against the country that had dispatched him to carry it out. In contrast to other spies, who are motivated by greed, a desire for revenge or other personal and material reasons, Gordievsky betrayed his country for ideological reasons – and asked for nothing in return.

“Money is still the most important single factor in spying, the oil on which the machinery runs,” Macintyre notes. But Gordievsky was a different species: an ideological spy. “He was motivated by variety of factors, although ideology was the principal one.”

Macintyre writes that in his “job interview” with his British handlers in 1974, Gordievsky told them, “No money. I want to work for the West out of ideological conviction, not for gain.” Finally, he agreed to take money, which was deposited for him in a London bank account and was earmarked for an emergency situation – which eventually came to pass – in which he would have to defect and live permanently in Britain. His value exceeded any amount of money, according to Macintyre.

A product of the communist regime, Gordievsky was familiar with the KGB’s ruthless cruelty. From the moment he relinquished the idea of absolute obedience to the government in Moscow, he decided to attack it with all his might. The first cracks in his belief in the system emerged in the wake of the construction of the Berlin Wall, in 1961, which shook him deeply. Seven years later, when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia, his loathing for the communist regime became intense. “This brutal attack on innocent people made me hate it with a burning, passionate hatred,” Macintyre quotes him as saying.

The KGB, the author notes, “was the most complex and far-reaching intelligence agency ever created.” Its missions included the collection and analysis of information, political warfare, media manipulation, spreading disinformation, forgery, intimidation, abduction and murder, he writes: “Oppressive, mysterious, and ubiquitous, the KGB penetrated and controlled every aspect of Soviet life.” At the peak of its power, more than a million officers, agents and informers served in the KGB, and it “shaped Soviet society more profoundly than any other institution.” From its inception, the KGB operated “without ethical restraint” and was “unapologetically unprincipled.”

Author Ben Macintyre.Credit: Guillem Lopez / NurPhoto / AFP

Gordievsky initially tried to make contact with the West himself. In 1965, he was posted to Denmark to supervise KGB secret agents there. Officially, he was a consular official. One day in 1968, following the abrupt end to the Prague Spring, he called his wife, Yelena, and started to revile and denounce the Soviet Union. Knowing the Danish secret service was tapping the embassy’s phones, he hoped that someone would get the message and try to recruit him as a double agent. The phone call, he wrote later in his memoirs, was a “first, deliberate signal to the West.” However, as Macintyre writes, “The West missed the signal.” Amid the flood of material that passes through the hands of intelligence personnel, the signal from the KGB agent went unnoticed.

Nonetheless, Danish intelligence subsequently tried to recruit Gordievsky – and this time, it was he who missed the signal. The Danes kept him under surveillance, as is customary with foreign diplomats. When their suspicions that he was more than just a simple diplomat grew, they tried to set a trap for him. Thinking, wrongly, that Gordievsky was gay, the Danish secret service sent a young agent to try to seduce him. The two met as though by chance at a reception at the residence of a West German diplomat, to which Gordievsky had been invited as a Russian diplomat. But Gordievsky, unmoved by the efforts at flirtation, turned down the young man’s invitation to have a drink with him in a pub.

Later, while he was still in Copenhagen, the British tried their hand. Gordievsky’s name had come up in the debriefing of a Soviet defector from the intelligence service, who had known him as a student in Moscow from their joint pastime: cross-country running. The defector told the British that Gordievsky had shown “clear signs of political disillusionment” and portrayed him as a potential target for recruitment. At first they sent a beautiful young woman to entice him, a dentistry student who would later become a world champion in badminton, a sport that Gordievsky also played. The plan failed. Gordievsky had a couple of drinks, chatted with the woman briefly, and went on his way.

Finally, the head of the local MI6 station himself undertook the recruiting mission. As described in Macintyre’s book, the “courtship” went on for a while and included “chance” meetings of the two at diplomatic receptions and athletic clubs. In the end, the British officer suggested straight out that the two meet in private. Gordievsky agreed.

His career as a double agent began in 1974. He continued to fulfill his official duties as a KGB agent who collected information and sent it to Moscow, but in secret he was also passing on information that came his way to the British. To have a spy planted deep within the KGB was the dream of every Western intelligence agency at the time. However, as CIA director Richard Helms observed, realizing such a dream was “as improbable as placing resident spies on the planet Mars.” Until Gordievsky’s recruitment, the West had very few effective agents in the Soviet Union, meaning that no reliable information existed about Moscow’s long-range plans and intentions.

(Just this week more details emerged about a clandestine CIA operation in 2017 to extract from Russia the person – named by media there as Oleg Smolenkov – who had apparently been the highest-level U.S. intelligence source in that country, with direct access to President Vladimir Putin. There had reportedly been fears that the agent’s cover would be blown by the media or even by President Donald Trump.)

Now the picture changed. In a letter explaining his decision to become a double agent, which he sent to his British handlers, Gordievsky wrote, “I must emphasize that my decision is not the result of irresponsibility or instability of character on my part. It has been preceded by a long spiritual struggle and by agonizing emotion, and even deeper disappointments at developments in my own country and my own experiences have brought me to the belief that democracy, and the tolerance of humanity that follows it, represents the only road for my country… The present regime is the antithesis of democracy to an extent which Westerners can never fully grasp. If a man realizes this, he must show the courage of his convictions and do something himself to prevent slavery from encroaching further upon the realms of freedom.”

And on another occasion he told his handlers, “I want to find out the most secret, the most important, the essential elements in the Soviet leadership. I want to find out how the system works.”

Macintyre sees in these declarations “the essence of Gordievsky’s rebellion”: to discover every possible thing about the regime he abhorred, in order to help topple it faster. According to the author, Gordievsky believed that his espionage activity for the West was a form of cultural rebellion, not an act of treason. “Just as Shostakovich, the composer, fought back with music, and Solzhenitsyn, the writer, fought back with words, so I, the KGB man, could only operate through my own intelligence world,” Gordievsky is quoted as saying in the book.

Still, Macintyre, who is well-grounded in the intricate world of espionage (his earlier books have included “Operation Mincemeat,” about an Allied operation to deceive the Germans about the D-Day invasion, and books about the double agents Ben Chapman and Kim Philby), admits that even in an exceptional case like this, it is impossible to talk about a spy being driven exclusively by ideology.

Gordievsky in an official KGB portrait.

“The inner world that drove Oleg is more obscure,” he writes in the book, noting several additional factors that impelled Gordievsky to become a double agent. He was, for example, motivated by a taste for adventure and romance, a need to rebel against his father, an urge to take revenge against his KGB colleagues (whom he viewed as ignorant, lazy rogues who won promotions thanks to sycophancy and internal politics), a desire for self-fulfillment and a search for love in the wake of a failed marriage.

Lunch-break smuggling

How did Gordievsky transmit the information he received from Moscow to the British? At the time, messages and instructions from KGB headquarters reached the Soviet embassy in Copenhagen on long strips of microfilm, sent via diplomatic pouch, whose contents under international law were not subject to scrutiny by the host country. Each such strip contained letters, memoranda and other documents.

Gordievsky managed to smuggle the microfilms out of the embassy building for half an hour, during the lunch break, and pass them on to a British agent posing as an innocent bystander outside. The latter took the microfilm to a nearby safe house and copied them using a small, mobile device that the British developed especially for the purpose. Within a short time, Gordievsky could return to his office and put the original microfilm back without anyone being the wiser. The British thus came into possession of hundreds of documents from the Soviet embassy in Denmark, where he was stationed through the early 1980s, that included details about operations, code names, instructions and secret surveys.

Gordievsky would later pass on information at clandestine meetings with his handlers held in a safe house. In this he was aided by one of the traits that made him such a superb spy: his phenomenal memory. “Most people tell a version of the past, and then either stick to it or embellish it,” Macintyre writes, but Gordievsky’s “powers of recall were different.” He was able to store prodigious amounts of information in his memory, including the content of conversations he had held and their contexts, and to analyze them and extract pointed insights. The result, according to Macintyre, was the “single greatest ‘operational download’ in MI6 history, an astonishingly meticulous and comprehensive insight into the KGB – past, present and future.”

The British abetted Gordievsky’s success as a KGB spy, in order to spur his promotion and thereby enable him to supply more highly classified information. To that end, they provided him with real intelligence about Britain, which was interesting enough to intrigue the Russians but would not put the kingdom’s security at risk. “In spy jargon such information is known as ‘chicken feed’… bulky, filling, but lacking in any real nutritional value,” Macintyre notes. The information included reports on British-U.S. relations and internal gossip from the Conservative Party that was gleaned at political conferences. Much of what Gordievsky was given to pass on came from “open-source information such as magazines and newspapers… With some imagination these could be made to seem like gathered intelligence,” Macintyre explains in the book.

But the British went further. To satisfy Gordievsky’s bosses in Moscow, they “created” genuine liaisons for him who conveyed real, albeit worthless, information. As such, Gordievsky could boast to his superiors about “sources” he had supposedly recruited. The tactic worked. Gordievsky was promoted and posted to London. The British could not have hoped for a better source: a senior KGB officer serving on their soil.

In 1981, Gordievsky dropped a bombshell. He reported to the British that MP Michael Foot, the head of the opposition Labour Party and its candidate to become the next prime minister, had in the past been a paid KGB agent. The information Foot had supplied to the Russians dealt with internecine battles within Labour and with the party’s views on such issues as the war in Vietnam. British intelligence decided to wait before passing on this information to the country’s leadership. The great fear was that if Foot were to defeat Thatcher in the 1984 election, the Soviets would have their own man in 10 Downing Street. In the end, the problem resolved itself: Thatcher won the election in a landslide and Foot resigned as party leader.

Thanks to the information Gordievsky supplied over the years, Western leaders realized how greatly Moscow feared them. Accordingly, they were able to deploy appropriately to avert a war that was liable to erupt if the Soviets were to misread the intentions of the Western countries. In 1983, for example, Gordievsky provided the British with a cable sent from Moscow to the London embassy, warning that the United States and NATO were contemplating a nuclear first strike against the Soviet Union. The cable added that they were capable of launching missiles within seven to 10 days of making that decision.

Gordievsky passed on to the British information about the measures the Russians were taking in the event of a worst-case scenario. This included surveillance to detect “unusual activity” at missile bases, at British government bunkers and at 10 Downing Street, as part of the search for evidence of frantic activity. On the basis of the spy’s reports, the British understood that Moscow feared that a NATO exercise was a cover for an attack by the West on the Soviet Union. In the wake of this information, the United States reduced its activity and NATO deliberately changed some aspects of its maneuvers in order to signal to the Russians that it was business as usual, and thus prevent any escalation.

The vast amount of information Gordievsky passed on also made it clear to the West that the KGB was now far from its threatening image and that it functioned like a faltering, clumsy and inefficient organization. It was still an extensive, well-funded and cruel institution. “But its ranks now also included many time servers and boot-lickers, lazy careerists with little imagination. The KGB was still a dangerous antagonist, but its vulnerabilities and deficiencies were now exposed,” Macintyre writes.

Because of Gordievsky, both Reagan and Thatcher revised their attitudes about the Cold War. His reports in fact indicated that the Soviets’ apprehensions were now liable to pose a greater danger than their aggression. “Three years had taught me something surprising about the Russians,” Reagan wrote in his memoirs. “Many people at the top of the Soviet hierarchy were genuinely afraid of America and Americans… I began to realize that many Soviet officials feared us not only as adversaries but as potential aggressors who might hurl nuclear weapons at them in a first strike.”

The valuable information Grodievsky provided prompted the Reagan administration to tone down its anti-Soviet rhetoric, while Thatcher decided to meet Moscow halfway, abandon talk about an “axis of evil” and make an effort to end the Cold War. Indeed, the Kremlin’s paranoia diminished noticeably.

Ronald Reagan with then-opposition head Margaret Thatcher, in a 1975 photo. Credit: AP

A good example of Gordievsky’s critical contribution is the historic visit by Mikhail Gorbachev – at the time the general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party (the country’s second in command) – to Britain in 1984. As the KGB “resident” in London, Gordievsky was asked to provide quality intel ahead of Gorbachev’s meeting with Thatcher. His handlers in British intelligence delivered the goods. The mutual espionage continued during the talks themselves. Every evening, Gorbachev asked the KGB for a detailed memorandum that would include “a forecast of the line the next day’s meeting would take.” British intelligence supplied Gordievsky with exactly what Gorbachev wanted, including documents drawn up by Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe listing the subjects to be discussed with Gorbachev and his aides the next day.

In the end, Gordievsky advised Gorbachev as to what to say to Thatcher to ensure a successful meeting, and at the same time advised the British prime minister what to say to her Russian guest. Thus, in unprecedented circumstances in the history of intelligence, Macintytre notes, a spy shaped the course of a meeting between two international leaders and in large measure determined its results.

Asked why he chose to devote such great resources to telling Gordievsky’s life story, Macintyre replies, “Oleg Gordievsky is one of the few spies in history to make a strategic difference to the way states behave.” The intelligence he provided, “from the heart of the Kremlin, was going direct to the desks of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, changing the way they saw the Soviet Union, paving the way for the beginning of the end of the Cold War.” As such, he sums up, Gordievsky “made us all a little safer.”

“...[V]ery occasionally, spies have a profound impact on history,” Macintyre observes. The breaking of the Enigma code, for example, shortened the World War II by at least a year, he says. Espionage and strategic deception aided the Normandy landing. The Soviets’ infiltration of the West’s espionage systems in the 1930s and 1940s gave Stalin a critical advantage in his dealings with the West.

“The pantheon of world-changing spies is small and select, and Oleg Gordievsky is in it,” Macintyre writes.

Losing the scent

In 1985, the KGB discovered the truth about the officer it had planted in London, ordered him back to Moscow and interrogated him, using its usual modus operandi. Its agents gave Gordievsky brandy spiked with a truth serum to loosen his tongue, broke into his home in the Russian capital in his absence and sprayed his shoes and clothes with an invisible radioactive powder that could be detected with special glasses; with a Geiger counter, they tracked the spy’s movements by means of the trail of dust he left behind.

It was ultimately an American double agent, Aldrich Ames, a CIA officer, who informed on Gordievsky to Moscow. Like Gordievsky, Ames took advantage of the information that came his way to provide valuable material to the intelligence organization of an enemy country. But his trajectory was the opposite of Gordievsky’s: He passed on secrets from the West to Russia, in return for money. Today he is serving a life sentence in the United States.

For his part, Gordievsky decided to set in motion a daring escape plan that the British had devised for him. He reached neighboring Finland – and freedom – in the trunk of a British diplomatic vehicle. He thus accomplished the impossible. “No suspected spy had ever escaped from the Soviet Union while under KGB surveillance,” writes Macintyre.

His book devotes considerable space to the escape operation, which is like something out of a James Bond movie. At the height of the escape, when the Russians brought a dog to sniff outside the trunk where Gordievsky was hiding, the British wielded a different weapon “never deployed before in the Cold War, or any other,” Macintyre writes. The wife of Gordievsky’s British handler, who was in the car with her baby daughter, placed the infant on the trunk of the car, directly above the spy, and changed her diaper – and the smell confounded the sniffer dog.

Gordievsky left his wife and two daughters behind. Yelena had known nothing about her husband’s double life. Six years after he was smuggled out of the Soviet Union, the British were able, through diplomatic contacts, to bring his family to England. A contributing factor was the thaw in relations with the West, just before the Soviet Union collapsed. But this story doesn’t have a happy ending. The couple “parted forever in 1993, their relationship destroyed by the battle between the KGB and MI6, between communism and the West,” Macintyre writes. “The marriage had been conceived amid the impossible contradictions of Cold War espionage, and died just as that war was ending.”



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